Ten Years of "Why Me?" v. "Why Not Me?"
Gratitude is one of those terms that gets tossed around a lot these days, particularly on this holiday.
Perhaps I’m especially cognizant of it this year because it was on Thanksgiving weekend 10 years ago when I had a near-death accident. It wasn’t my first sports injury, but it certainly was “the big one.” Every time I hear or read about gratitude, it stirs up a lot of conflicting feelings.
On Nov. 26, 2011, just after 1 pm, I went head-to-windshield with a sleepy driver behind the wheel of an SUV -- and I lost. All hyperbole aside, I shouldn’t be alive today.
So yes, of course, I’m very grateful to be a survivor.
However, I didn’t come through unscathed. I lost my spleen and an inch off my right leg, my spine was crushed, and now my lower body is completely paralyzed. And that’s just to start, but you get the idea.
Ten years is a long time -- Donald Trump was a mere reality TV star, Xi Jinping was little known outside of China, and the Giants were on a winning streak that would take them straight through the Super Bowl. Perhaps it’s the Giants winning ways that feels the most distant now.
I know I’m showing my age but before my injury, when I thought of famous paralyzed athletes and celebrities -- people like Roy Campanella, Darryl Stingly, and more recently, Christopher Reeve -- all I could think about was how it seemed to me that their life was over.
But could they live and thrive? My impression back then was not so much. Have attitudes changed in the 25 years since Reeve’s accident? Somewhat, but clearly not enough.
I think a lot about what I can do to change that thinking and have picked up three aphorisms I subscribe to:
1. Why Not Me?
After my accident, I just couldn't get past the "Why Me?"s of being the one who got hit by a car. As an actuary's son, I knew the risk of her losing control at the very moment we were bicycling along on the other side of the road was low and sufficiently worth taking.
But I also know that is the definition of risk -- the chance of loss or peril. Only this time, that small chance bit me for all it’s worth.
Those seemingly one-in-a-million occurrences happen more often than we think. Spinal cord injuries are rare in the context of a country of 330 million people. Rare, yes, but nonexistent, no. There are 300,000 spinal cord injured Americans or ~.1% of the population.
So as for me, the question shouldn’t really be “Why me?” -- but rather, “Why not me?” Bad stuff does happen to people all the time. Harold Kushner wrote a book about it.
But rather than a lament, I choose to view it as my new marching orders to get off my butt (figuratively of course) to make my mark.
My wife and I started a business that addresses a problem we see through our unique lenses. After being frustrated with our options for home care after my accident, we thoughtfully designed LeanOnWe, a service for families looking to find private, highly recommended caregivers suited to their specific needs. Though the idea germinated out of my own needs, it grew to be something that serves adults of all ages and with many different conditions.
In addition, I support initiatives to improve our quality of life and work for a cure for those with spinal cord injuries.
I support the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and get behind my friend Eric LeGrand’s annual Walk to Believe, which funds Reeve’s mission of “Today’s Care and Tomorrow’s Cure.” I’ve been its top fundraiser since getting involved six years ago and have now raised a total of $150,000 and counting.
2. We can’t change the hand we’re dealt, but we can play our best possible hand.
My dad was a championship bridge player in college so I view this in the context of bridge. Unlike most card games, winning at bridge isn’t just predicated on the hand you’ve been dealt, and you can sometimes win even if dealt a bad hand.
Nothing would make me happier than going for a run or hike in the woods, but dwelling on such things isn’t going to make them happen. I am choosing to make the best of things.
LeGrand, the former Rutgers University tackle who suffered a spinal cord injury during a 2010 game, believes in the notion of a peace of mind that comes with knowing you’ve given it your all. And I think that’s about right.
Of course, giving it your all is relative. But that’s why initiatives to promote DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) are essential. It’s a better and more equitable society when everyone gets the tools to succeed.
Over the past five years, I’ve rekindled my love of sports through para-rowing. While visiting our daughter a few years ago in Boston, we watched the premier rowing competition -- the annual Head of the Charles regatta. I was stoked, and last month I competed in the race.
3. Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it’s the only means ~ Albert Einstein.
I now understand that I’ve been given the opportunity to change perceptions on what can be achieved, even with limitations. What impact can I have where I bring a unique perspective and change misconceptions?
After spending some time recently with a close friend who I lost touch with post-injury, he suggested I watch the Netflix show, “Away,” starring Hillary Swank. At first, I didn’t know why, but then realized her on-screen husband becomes paralyzed from a stroke yet continues to hold a critical role as a NASA scientist.
My friend was indirectly complimenting me as someone who went beyond the “woe is me” stage and is surprisingly still engaging and contributing, despite a disability. Though initially taken aback, I realized that kind of influence is empowering and opens new possibilities.
In a similar vein a few years ago, I was asked to deliver a university commencement address. The board of trustees believed my example of resilience and pushing limits would resonate with the graduating seniors -- it did. When I realized my narrative of not giving up inspires others and changes perceptions of what we can be, it energized me to pursue public speaking.
I’ve also become a peer mentor for the newly injured to help them navigate through those particularly trying early days after spinal cord damage.
I continue to lean on and engage with my large network of friends -- both able-bodied and disabled. The extensive support system has been a lifeblood for me, and for that, I know I’m lucky.
But above all, my family, and particularly my wife, Betsy, have been there for me. She was there at the ICU a decade ago when the Hackensack University Medical Center trauma team didn’t think I’d make it through the night, then through two months in the ICU and three months in rehab, and every day since. Always thinking, always worrying, and always supporting me.
Above all, she allowed me to turn the “Why Me?”s on their head and move to “Why Not Me?” And for that this Thanksgiving, I’m truly grateful.